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SINFONIETTA REVIEW: It began gently … and ended appropriately with the lively ‘Finale’

Shortened program. No intermission. No free reception afterward.

But it still beats sitting around the house watching summer reruns on TV. (Not to mention that seven-game series the Mets completed with Pittsburgh last weekend.) The Lake Placid Sinfonietta under the direction of Stuart Malina on Sunday, July 18 performed a well-balanced and at times lively, other times very busy, and on occasion spiritual and introspective mixture of pieces by three American composers: Robert Ward (1917-2013), Victor Herbert (1859-1924), and Aaron Copland (1900-1990).

Mr. Malina explained how a particular faction of early 20th century composers such as Arnold Schoenberg crossed the abyss into the unexplored world of atonal music where there is no tonal center, no key signature, and hardly ever a tuneful melody your average audience member can bite into and hum to himself on the way home.

An evening of atonal music is not one liable to produce very many repeat customers. On the other hand, there was the other faction who preferred to write in the more traditional style of tonal music which is more pleasing to the average ear and more likely to enable the composer to bring home some bacon. The three composers featured last Sunday in a program themed “American Landscapes” were of this latter persuasion.

Ward’s best known work is “The Crucible,” an operatic setting of Arthur Miller’s stage drama by the same name that won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for music. His work the Sinfonietta actually performed, however, was his Symphony No. 6 published in 1988.

Unlike the standard four-movement format that Haydn forged and his pupil, Mozart, followed, this symphony of Ward’s has only three movements. It has a delightful intensity with its lively melodies and thick, close harmonies while maintaining a sense of traditional tonality. Even the second movement labeled “Lento,” maintains a playful intensity to it.

The orchestra followed this with just two movements from “Serenade for String Orchestra, Opus 12,” a six-movement work by Lake Placid’s own Victor Herbert.

It began gently with the third movement, titled “Love Scene,” and ended appropriately with the lively “Finale” movement where there was little mystery as to when to applaud.

Closing up the program with Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” the orchestra demonstrated its mastery of this complex suite for orchestra as it did three years ago during its farewell bid to Mr. Malina’s predecessor, Ron Spigelman.

Originally written for 13 instruments, “Appalachian Spring” came about after a number of requests from Copland’s longtime friend, dancer/choreographer Martha Graham who wanted him to write a ballet accompaniment with her in the lead role. Copland was given a basic script involving a wedding day in rural Pennsylvania during the pioneer era.

The finished version that Copland turned in with its now iconic variations on the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” wasn’t quite finished because it had no title yet. He just referred to it as “Ballet for Martha.”

“She has such a special and marked personality of her own it was easy to put it into musical terms, or so it seemed so to me,” he said during a TV interview decades later. “I’ve often been amused because after a performance someone’s come up to me, more than once, and said, ‘When I hear your music and see that ballet I can just see the Appalachians and feel spring.’ And the odd thing is that when I wrote the music for Martha … it had no title. So I had no idea it was going to be called ‘Appalachian Spring.’ I was really putting Martha to music. The ballet would not have been the same had it been written for somebody else.”

The title “Appalachian Spring” came about shortly before its premiere in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 30, 1944 at the Library of Congress when Ms. Graham suggested it after seeing it used in the poem “The Bridge” by Hart Crane.

Copland later trimmed the ballet accompaniment by about 10 minutes to convert it into the orchestral suite most people know it as today. He then arranged it for full orchestra. In all, there are four versions of “Appalachian Spring,” but it was the original version for 13 instruments that Martha Graham and her ballet company danced to that won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for music.